There is a buzz in the air in Parkhill, Ont. It’s a picturesque town of about 1,700—that is, if you don’t count the mosquitoes. Nestled partway between Lake Huron and London in North Middlesex County, the town’s residents have spent the summer living through what reads like the plot to a B movie. In the time it takes to swat through clouds of mosquitoes on the path between the front door and the car door, it’s not uncommon for people to get 10 or 12 bites, North Middlesex Mayor Don Shipway says. “Kids can’t even go outside,” he told Maclean’s. “People are frustrated; it is going to be a health hazard if we don’t get it under control.”
The mosquitoes have always been bad in Parkhill, but this year is different. The numbers are staggering: less than 30 km away in Strathroy, a mosquito trap attracted 800 of the insects in four weeks. In the same time period in Parkhill, the same type of trap caught 51,000. “I’ve been involved in mosquito control for 10 years and it’s the worst I’ve ever seen it,” says Middlesex-London Health Unit vector-borne disease coordinator Jeremy Hogeveen.
Parkhill isn’t the only community with residents spending their summer covering themselves in DEET. Mosquito populations in parts of the Prairies have exploded this summer after heavy spring rainfall and flooding. The Edmonton Eskimos moved their practice inside last week after general manager Eric Tillman likened the roofless Commonwealth Stadium to the jungle. And in Regina, councillors voted to add $200,000 to the fight against the bugs this summer, bringing the city’s total mosquito suppression budget to $500,000. The latest count puts the number of mosquitoes in Saskatchewan’s capital at more than double the historical average.
But in Parkhill, the mosquito problem is literally sucking the life out of the community. The town’s splash pad has been empty all season. Evening barbeques are out of the question. So far this summer, Parkhill resident Jenny Jutzi has taken her 11-year-old and 14-year-old sons out of town to the lake, on picnics, hiking and to visit their grandmother. “Anywhere else but Parkhill,” she says. “It’s just horrible here. I’m from Manitoba originally, so I know what mosquitoes are all about, living along Lake Winnipeg. But this is bad.”
Long-time resident Carrie Muma says her brother put his family’s Parkhill home up for sale last week after their 14-month-old son had a bad reaction to mosquito bites. “They want to leave town to get away from this problem,” says Muma, who has collected 23 pages of signatures on a petition to convince the local conservation authority to take action on the issue. “This cannot be affecting our livelihood like this.” Still, there isn’t an impending mass exodus as some media reports have indicated, Muma says. Instead, most townspeople are ready to face the mosquito scourge head on. “This issue has gone on for years. The rest of us are hoping to get to the bottom of it,” she says.
The mosquitoes have always been bad in Parkhill, but snow runoff and heavy spring rain this year created an ideal breeding ground. And many have blamed the roughly 62 acres of stagnant, wet areas downstream of the town dam as the primary source of the problem. The local conservation authority, health unit and municipality have been in talks with residents about the situation, with short-term solutions such as spraying to kill adult mosquitoes, and long-term solutions such as draining still water on the table for discussion.
But do the mosquitoes in Parkhill pose an actual health threat to the community? What has many residents worried is that among the species of mosquitoes found in the town exist the kind capable of transmitting West Nile virus and other mosquito-borne diseases, says Middlesex-London’s medical officer of health Dr. Graham Pollett. So far, there’s no evidence of West Nile in the community, but a viable risk exists. “We have a potential public health issue,” Pollett says. There hasn’t been any positive West Nile activity in Parkhill since 2005, according to the health unit’s Hogeveen. It’s cold comfort for Parkhill townspeople. “You can take that on the plus side,” Hogeveen says, “but you’re still getting eaten alive.”